Writer /director Abdelhamid Bouchnak’s Dachra is his first feature and the first Tunisian horror film I’ve seen. Actually, I’m fairly sure it’s the first Tunisian film of any kind that I’ve seen. I have however seen genre films from a pair of other Northern African countries, Achoura and Djinns, (aka Stranded), from Morocco. And from Egypt 122 and Warda. They ranged from interesting to impressive and I was curious to see how this compared to them.
Dachra opens with a killing that, although nothing is explained, appears to be a human sacrifice. That makes an effective lead in to the main plot which revolves around Yasmine (Yasmine Dimassi), Bilel (Bilel Slatnia), and Walid (Aziz Jbali) a trio of journalism students. Their grade rests on a filmed investigation, the criteria being that it has to be something unique, and not about the Revolution.
The trio settles on the case of Mongia (Hela Ayed) an inmate at a nearby asylum. Twenty years ago she was found by the highway naked with her throat slit. She survived, some say through the use of dark magic. An attempt to interview her and her doctor goes badly wrong. But they do find out just where she was found.
Heading there they find the village of Dachra. It’s full of strangely silent women dressed in black and there’s freshly butchered meat drying everywhere. They’re convinced to stay the night by one of the locals. Needless to say his motive is not hospitality.
Dachra takes local folklore about present-day witches and tells it with an eye towards mostly Western horror cinema. The bickering students could easily have come from The Blair Witch Project. A chase scene involving a little girl in a red raincoat recalls Don’t Look Now. And, although the town is meant to make you think of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, it actually reminded me more of Tsui Hark’s We are Going to Eat You.
I was expecting Dacha to lean more heavily on Tunisian culture. But it actually makes sense that since the country lacks a tradition of genre film it would borrow imagery from established sources. I just wish Bouchnak had better integrated them into their surroundings.
That doesn’t stop Dachra from being an effective film. It builds up an atmosphere of menace right from the start and builds on through the film’s 114 minute running time. Director of photography Hatem Nechi contributes several memorable shots and atmospheric scenes that help elevate the film’s impact. These mix well with some rather gruesome scenes and effective jump scares.
While some of the scenes of the trio bickering amongst themselves could have been trimmed, Dachra does a fairly good job of keeping things moving despite its length. The discovery of an old diary and reenactments of its contents help fill out the second hour and fill in some blanks without letting the film become repetitious.
Unfortunately though Dacha also uses several cliche plot devices that undermine the film’s effective moments. They range from opening text claiming the film is “Inspired by true events” through characters who are too dense to realize the danger they’re in until it’s too late. It’s so obvious that Saber (Hedi Majri) is hiding something behind his overly friendly facade. I’d have been hiking back to the road in record time. One is even used as a last act twist, but it’s so obvious I felt insulted Bouchnak thought it would be a shock.
Still, there’s more good than bad in Dachra. It’s engagingly creepy and a solid debut from an unexpected source. Hopefully next time though they’ll include more fresh, local ingredients in the stew.